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Home > Contents > Article: Julien Paret
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Do Automated Models Dream of Universal Truths?

Robert Bressonís Transcendental Cinema in the Age of Generative Artificial Intelligence

Julien Paret

Robert Bresson was a great French filmmaker who was especially known for his unique way of interpreting the role of the actor. Bresson believed that the film actor, in the process of realizing a role, tended to contribute noise to it through his or her histrionics. He instructed his actors (whom he called ‘models’) to deliver their lines as flatly as possible – as if it were being read out - and relied on the natural connections between voice and gesture. He also used mechanical sounds – like the scratching of a pen on paper in the courtroom scene where Joan of Arc is being tried in The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) – to get at truths that the theatrical aspects of most films tend to suppress. The performance, he believed, tended to drown out universal truths and he wanted his models to ‘be’, instead of only ‘seeming’. With the arrival of the digitally-created human presence, this brief essay asks if AI generated humans could have served as ‘models’ in a film by Robert Bresson.
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When the bounty hunter Rick Deckard, the main character of the dystopian science-fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968) which inspired Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner (1982), experiences a vision of the prophet-like Wilbur Mercer, a martyr-figure who heralds the advent of a new technology-based religion that worships the God of biomechanics, the old man tells him that the basic condition of life for every organism is to violate its own identity in the sense that the curse of destiny, the curse that feeds on all existence, lies in the fact that no matter what they do or where they go, truly living creatures are doomed to blunder while performing on the stage of reality. By highlighting the rhetoric of technological transcendence, American writer Philip K. Dick's seminal masterpiece, which paved the way for cyberpunk literature, explicitly plays with confusions between the singularity of human experience and the reproducibility of machine-derived intelligence while questioning the difference between a theoretically perfect artificially generated entity fitted with memories and emotions according to the wishes of its creator - like high-tech versions of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s “conceptual  persona”(1) - and a mere mortal nurtured through the usual channels of existence.

Even though French filmmaker Robert Bresson (1901-1999) was not a votary of “Mercerism” - neurologically connected to a computer-mediated reality embedded in a nightmare-like eternity of collective suffering through a digital “empathy box” as cyber-Christians do in Philip K. Dick’s story - his preoccupation with artificial existence, as well as the connection he makes between the limitations of physical experience in search of transcendence is evident not only in his disregard for acting, which he sees as ridiculous theatrical performance saturated with distorted expressions and coarse emotions, but also in his particular attention to the noises that machines make, especially the sounds of electrical equipment and other mechanical apparatuses that drown out human voices, the inhuman tones and notes produced by various engine frequencies that go beyond the capacities of human utterances.(2)

Conscious of the ejaculatory force of the voice, given that human beings are “vococentric” animals whose ears prioritize the human voice over any other sounds, Bresson wanted his actors to not think about what they were saying, but what they were doing, assuming that they should simply be themselves when repeating their lines. This is why he did not “direct” them, but only gave some basic indication by asking, for example, not to look into their partners’ eyes but rather to speak into their right ear adopting a flat intonation and saying their lines “trippingly on the tongue” as if they were talking to themselves, repeating the mantras of a holy book, or offering a prayer, in the same way as Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky's protagonist in the short story White Nights (1848), described by the narrator as well as his interlocutors as speaking in a monotonous and distant way as if he was reading something out.

For this purpose, Bresson’s casting process was based on vocal auditions and his own intuition; he expected actors to deliver their lines in the flattest way possible, without performing or emoting with their faces, but moving and speaking automatically not thinking about their movements or anything else. His cinematic philosophy implied using “models”, if not “automata”, who emptied their minds of thoughts and radically suppressed any kind of intention in their playing rather than “actors” who, like alienated shells filled with artificial sand, were allegedly incapable of embodying natural expressions. Indeed, initially trained as a painter and very different from theatre directors, Bresson never held in high esteem actors that he considered as given to histrionics who “seem” instead of “being”, drawing from Chateaubriand’s pointed comment on 19th century poets but adapting it to acting: that the “naturalness” of actors resulted from a lack of “nature”(3). After the release of The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne (1945), his last commercially successful movie, Bresson preferred to use only “models”, as he referred to them, rather than “actors” to set on the screen his personal conception of cinematography as a live picture of passion and a reflection upon redemption and salvation. Like his master in painting, the post-impressionist Paul Cézanne, whose modulating approach was based on the suggestion of forms and contours by the oppositions and contrasts of colors, his artistic vision was driven by creation through eyes and ears by looking like a painter's eternally fresh canvas and hearing like a musician’s perpetually virgin score.

The most prominent example of this automatic mode of expression can be found in the masterpiece The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962) in which the leading actress (Florence Delay), who stars as Joan of Arc, answers her judges’ questions in a form of indirect free speech as if she was speaking not to them, but to the transcendental voices of the angels and saints who pushed her to take up arms against the British crown: being mechanized externally (flattened voice and automatic movements), but remaining internally free (true to her vow to obey the divine voices who commanded her to chase the English out of France), Joan is the epitome of the Bressonian “model” whose movements, in contrast to those of “actors”, are not driven from the interior to the exterior, but from the exterior to the interior such as the algorithmic models at the root of generative artificial intelligence, which are able to identify the patterns and structures within datasets to generate new and original content such as text, imagery, audio or other media. One may well wonder, in view of the foregoing, whether Robert Bresson would embrace the convergence of his new language of cinema, that he called “cinematography”, with the emergence of machine-learning for arts using computational creativity to reach digital divinity in a time when voice actors and scriptwriters, among other key players of the cinema industry, fear for their future as artificial intelligence rises and no specialist plainclothes police officers like Rick Deckard are given a license to forcibly retire the software that pose as human voices or images in the cybersphere.

In Philip K. Dick’s novel, replicants can be detected by means of the fictional Voight-Kampff test in which emotional responses are provoked to measure nonverbal reactions. Analogous to Alan Turing's test which aims to see if a computer could convince a human that it is another human by answering a series of questions, it measures physiological responses in order to determine if a lie or an inconsistency is being told, for example by asking the alleged synthetic humans if they agree that serving boiled dog stuffed with rice at a banquet is more acceptable than eating raw oysters. In identifying the connection between the verbal and non-verbal responses of the examined subjects, the Voight-Kampff test is comparable to Bresson’s statement on the interdependence of voice and face, given that, in his opinion, both are formed together and have grown used to each other. Unlike computer-generated "actors” whose performances, by definition, cannot rest on the irreproducible combination of a unique voice and a unique face which have mutually influenced and nurtured each other, Bressonian “models” can escape not only from their creators, but also from their own determinism since they are capable, to paraphrase their inventor, of being “divinely” themselves. In other words, by sublimating their mechanical nature to the point that they emancipate themselves from reality to dig into their inner self in order to commune with their spark of the divine, they manage to awaken “the eternal beneath the accidental”.

By following this Dickian approach, Bresson reminds us that one of the core objectives of his minimalist style was to foster the audience’s gap-filling ability and nudge its members to interpret in their own way the grammar of his cinematic philosophy. Leaving viewers free to seek the transcendence that lies behind the veil of reality in the same way that Deckard hunts replicants who masquerade as humans, Bresson, despite his alleged interest in the multidimensional aspects of the digital experience, would have probably not considered computer-generated actors, nor computer-generated artworks in general, if they can be called that, as intrinsic to what he defined as “cinematography”, given that his films intended to empower the audience by opening the road to a higher level of consciousness closer to the divine, whereas generative artificial intelligence, so far, can only answer questions whose frames have been predetermined within specific datasets in all predictability, which results in cultivating audience’s passivity and consists in a “photographed theater” with “actors” performing a play instead of a “writing with images in movement and sounds” with “models” freeing themselves from and through their fictional characters. That brings us to believe that Robert Bresson, in line with Rick Deckard, would have maybe questioned the existence of his own identity as a filmmaker, but most probably not crossed the Rubicon of “artistic singularity” by moving from his automated models in search of transcendence to algorithmic models which ironically are the prisoners of their too human essence.


Notes

1.

Deleuze and Guattari introduce this unique figure in the third chapter of What is Philosophy?, arguing that every philosopher seeks to lay out a plan(e) of immanence in order to populate it with his or her own concepts, in contradistinction to notions belonging to religion and science, including those concepts it borrows from previous (and even ‘antipathetic’) philosophers. ‘…the conceptual persona is needed to create concepts on the plane, just as the plane needs to be laid out. But these two operations merge in the persona, which itself appears as a distinct operator.’ Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, What is Philosophy? London: Verso, 1994, pp 35-64. As instance would be Socrates as a conceptual persona created by Plato since the real Socrates himself never actually wrote.


2.

Mechanical sounds could also have resemblances to mystical aspects of being - like spiritual awareness on the Brahminic model of “Aum”, the primordial vibration of the universe according to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.


3.

Bresson elaborated on his disdain for acting by appropriating a remark Chateaubriand had made about 19th century poets and applying it to actors: "what they lack is not naturalness, but Nature." For Bresson, "to think it's more natural for a movement to be made or a phrase to be said like this than like that" is "absurd", and "nothing rings more false in film than the overstudied sentiments" of theater.

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Dr. Julien Paret is Director, Alliance Centre for Eurasian Studies, in the Department of Language & Literature. He is a versatile scholar with a cross-disciplinary outlook specialized in Russian and Eurasian affairs. He received his Ph.D. in Post-Soviet studies (languages, cultures, and politics) from Paris-Sorbonne & National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilizations (INALCO) and holds a master’s degree in liberal arts & travel management from Paris-Sorbonne as well as a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts & linguistics from Jean Moulin Lyon III. His work lies at the ---intersection of history, philosophy, and international relations.


Courtesy: Do Automat models dream of




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